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I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the recent DDoS attack that was breathlessly described as ‘breaking’ the ‘entire Internet’. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say the original reporting was “shoddy” (a sub-editor wrote that headline) but certainly scepticism was severely lacking. Unfortunately, as long as the public continue to expect something for nothing this is the type of journalism in store. Public relations people are constantly badgering journalists to run stories that serve some private interest. These journalists used to be paid a decent wage to report their own stories. Now their numbers are crashing yet they are expected to write more with fewer resources in less time. If you want quality journalism there’s no way around it. We have to pay for it.
How a cyberwar was spun by shoddy journalism
The Guardian, Friday 29 March 2013
Journalistic scepticism was lacking when stories about a DDoS attack ‘breaking’ the internet surfaced. This is a real future risk
‘A lot of people have a lot to gain from peddling scare stories about cyber “warfare”. As with any type of politics it’s important to know precisely who is making the claims and what their interests are.’ Photograph: Daniel Law/PA
A veteran Reuters reporter related a piece of advice given by his editor: “It’s not just what you print that makes you an authoritative and trusted source for news, but what you don’t print.”
He wasn’t talking about censorship, he was talking about what separates journalism from stenography and propaganda: sceptical scrutiny. The professionalism of the craft isn’t simply learning to write or broadcast what other people tell you. Crucially it is the ability to delve, interrogate and challenge, and checking out stories you’ve discovered through your own curiosity, or robustly testing what other people tell you is true.
Scepticism was in short supply this week when breathless claims about the collapse of the internet were published in such reputable publications as the New York Times, the BBC and even technical journal Ars Technica, all falling prey to the hyped-up drama of a DDoS attack against Spamhaus, a group that tracks spammers, and their alleged attacker Cyberbunker, a Dutch hosting company Spamhaus had blacklisted.
Ars Technica described the attack as at “a scale that’s threatening to clog up the internet’s core infrastructure and make access to the rest of the internet slow or impossible”. “If a Tier 1 provider fails, that risks breaking the entire internet,” it continued.
There is risk everywhere. Being alive carries the risk of death. It’s no good just saying what might happen (that’s the role of a screenwriter or novelist), what matters is the likelihood of it happening. The “risk” of the entire internet breaking from such an attack is very small. That should have killed off the worst of the scaremongering headlines and alerted the sceptical reporter that something was afoot.
A lot of people have a lot to gain from peddling scare stories about cyber “warfare”. As with any type of politics it’s important to know precisely who is making the claims and what their interests are.
In whose interest is it to hype up the collapse of the internet from a DDoS attack? Why, the people who provide cyber security services of course. And looking at the reporting, almost all the sources are directly involved and have a vested interest. The claims about the scale of the attack are from CloudFlare, the anti-DDoS firm hired by Spamhaus to ward off the attack. Eschewing subtlety they blogged about the event: “The DDos that Almost Broke the Internet”.
As soon as you have a source with a direct involvement, scepticism should be your guide. Sadly, reporters don’t always have the time or space for scepticism, and increasingly they are judged only on their ability to fill space at speed. In this environment there is no incentive to challenge a good yarn.
While the infrastructure of the internet might not be easy for reporters to understand, simply juxtaposing quotes from opposing sides isn’t all there is to journalism. Yes, this was a big attack in terms of traffic directed against one website (approx 300Gbps), but the internet seemed to cope just fine.
Even if you knew nothing about technology, you could have done what Sam Biddle did at Gizmodo and simply asked some challenging, sceptical questions such as:
• Why wasn’t my internet slow?
• Why didn’t anyone notice this over the course of the past week, when it began?
• Why isn’t anyone without a financial stake in the attack saying the attack was this much of a disaster?
• Why haven’t there been any reports of Netflix outages, as the New York Times and BBC reported?
• Why do firms that do nothing but monitor the health of the web, like Internet Traffic Report, show zero evidence of this Dutch conflict spilling over into our online backyards?
This story wasn’t just a failure to understand technology. It was a failure of basic journalism practice. To be willing to not write the story if it didn’t stack up.
This is the danger of the “dark age of journalism”, as it has been called. The training of the old Reuters reporter is replaced by one of political and corporate collusion. The separation between newsrooms and public relations agencies growing ever thinner as reporters rush to fill space at all costs, regardless of truth.
Even after she’d written the piece in the New York Times, tech reporter Nicole Perlroth tweeted how she was still getting targeted by corporate PRs to cover the “story”: “Hi Nicole, News is just breaking on the biggest cyber-attack in history. Are you planning on covering?”
The collapse of journalism combined with complex, fast-changing technology offers a wealth of opportunity for propagandists. In the soil of ignorance, fear can easily be sown. So it is with cyberwarfare.
Assange is no hero. He’s just another Max Clifford
The Times (London), February 8, 2013 Friday
Jemima Khan so believed in the cause of WikiLeaks, of opening up state secrets to the public gaze, that she put up bail for Julian Assange, a man accused of rape and sexual assault. Now, in an article for the New Statesman she writes of her disillusionment, warning that he risks going from Jason Bourne to L. Ron Hubbard.
Mr Assange is an example of the crusading campaigner who equates righteousness with media attention. He hijacked a noble cause as a means of self-aggrandisement. Indeed, at his 40th birthday party he auctioned photographs of himself to the assembled celebrity admirers. Many people, not just Ms Khan, were so eager for him to be the person they wanted him to be that they failed or refused to see what he was: a morally questionable man exploiting idealistic supporters to advance his own fame.
Some cling to the fiction that Mr Assange “changed the game”. Did he? As a result of his actions governments across the world have been frightened into ever greater internet surveillance. If a campaigner’s ultimate aim is to change the law, WikiLeaks has failed.
WikiLeaks was at its best before Mr Assange took the credit for it, when it was a team publishing on the internet material that journalists couldn’t report in their own countries. The “megaleaks” of thousands of documents – the Afghan and Iraq war logs and the US diplomatic cables – were certainly powerful. But the credit belongs to Bradley Manning, the US soldier detained since 2010, who risked his life to make them public. It’s clear from his chat logs that educating the public was his goal, not granting Mr Assange a proprietorial licence to cajole journalists into writing sycophantic profiles. For that reason I was happy to break his monopoly and leak his most precious leak – the diplomatic cables.
“WikiLeaks exposed corruption, war crimes, torture and cover-ups,” Jemima Khan writes. No it didn’t. It was exposed by Private Manning and the reporters who spent weeks digging through the data to make sense of it and produce stories that stacked up. Mr Assange’s contribution was to organise – or rather get his young interns and lackeys to organise – the huge press conference in which he starred as saviour.
Mr Assange is, at best, a middle man of the Max Clifford variety, brokering deals between source and newspaper. Except that Private Manning got only incarceration and a potential life sentence. Far from advancing the cause of openness worldwide, Mr Assange has gravely undermined it by so shamelessly making it all about himself.
A few notes on why I generally don’t respond to anonymous people on twitter or in comments.
Anonymity is a privilege. Words are powerful and if that power is not to be abused it must be accountable.
There are some cases where granting the privilege of anonymity is necessary and warranted. Primarily this is where direct harm would befall someone if he or she were identified as the source of the words. Such is the case with whistleblowers, insiders or someone in a vulnerable position. If these people are identified, they face the immninent threat of losing their jobs, their livlihoods or their well-being. They may face personal attack (physical or legal) for speaking out. They may be breaking corporate confidentiality even though what they expose is in the public interest.
Others need anonymity to be able to voice inconvenient truths, or to simply tell their stories. Women posting about driving without a male overseer in Saudi Arabia, for example, need anonymity to avoid being arrested.
The primary justification for anonymity is provable harm.
There are other occasions where people use anonymity to take on a different persona in order to explore different parts of themselves or simply for fun. I don’t see a problem with this so long as they aren’t hurting anyone.
But the idea that anonymity is a right and not a privilege is wrong. There needs to be good reason to avoid being accountable for what we say or write, particularly if what we say affects other people. Too often online, anonymity is the tool of the bullying coward, a means to avoid responsibility for publishing threats, abuse and lies.
That doesn’t mean writing only anodyne, inoffensive drivel. It does mean having the courage of your convictions and the ability to withstand criticism. If you believe in what you say, put your name behind it. People may disagree with you. That’s fine. But if they launch an anonymous ad hominem attack that is not fine. It reveals a weak argument made by someone who is a coward, a fool and/or a nasty piece of work.
Perusing some old books in the London Library, I came across this statement on the English press. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1938.
But in England the links between government and newspapers are much more remote and subtle. The newspaper press is largely trustified – that is, controlled by rich men whose interests on the whole are bound up with conservatism. At the same time the commercial aspect of newspapers – reader-interest on the one hand and advertising on the other – make daily newspapers incline towards sensationalism, which means, towards opening their columns to anything which seems likely to increase circulation. And this sensationalism, bad as it is on the aesthetic and moral sides, does at least ensure a continuation of competition and rivalry in enterprise, which brings in its wake much of what we value as “freedom of expression of opinion.”
From “Propaganda” by Richard S. Lambert (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1938)
Random House have done a trailer for my upcoming book: The Revolution Will Be Digitised. Available from August 18th.
“The gas can be turned up and the gas can be turned down,” the minister said, but stressed there was no question of removing the prince. “The royals go on, that is what they do,” he said.
This was said not about the Saudi royal family in light of the pro-democracy movements sweeping the Middle East, rather they are the words of a UK cabinet minister speaking about the British royal family in today’s newspapers. The power the Royal family wield and the public money they claim is entirely a matter for their own discretion. Prince Andrew apparently cannot be sacked from his ‘voluntary role’ at the UK Trade & Investment government agency despite becoming a national embarrassment with his cosy meetings with despots and criminals.
Former Foreign Minister Chris Bryant tried to raise the issue of Prince Andrew’s position and lack of accountability on the floor of the House of Commons. “Isn’t it time we dispensed with the services of the Duke of York?” he asked.
Amazingly he was scolded by the Speaker John Bercow for daring to ask this much-needed question:
“References to members of the Royal Family should be very rare, very sparing and very respectful. We have to be very careful in our handling of these matters.”
Do we? Why? Are we living in Thailand where it is illegal to criticise the Royal Family? Or Brunei where the Constitution states “His Majesty the Sultan can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity” and further admonishes that “No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honour, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan”. It seems Prince Andrew shares a similar standing to the Sultan in John Bercow’s mind.
It is remarkable we know as much as we do about Prince Andrew’s activities as the Royal family are protected from public accountability by law. Last May in the wash-up of government an amendment to the Freedom of Information Act was pushed through granting the royal family an absolute exemption from the public’s right to know. Even before this, the Royals were not covered by the law directly. Instead the public had a limited right to make FOIs to public bodies about royal funding and lobbying of public officials. Now even that minimal level of accountability has been eliminated.
This is a travesty. As long as the royal family can cream off public money and influence public policy all without any form of public accountability then we are subjects not citizens and in no position to lecture anyone about democracy.
UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham has handed out the first fines for breaches of the Data Protection Act saying they will “send a strong message” to those handling data.
The commissioner was given the ability to fine organisations up to £500,000 for breaching the Act earlier this year. Hertfordshire County Council was fined £100,000 for sending two faxes regarding a child sex abuse case to the wrong recipient. Sheffield-based company A4e was fined £60,000 after a computer containing the unencrypted data of 24,000 people was lost. Both incidents occurred in June.
In these cases, both organisations came forward of their own accord. In some American states such as California, revealing breaches such as this is mandatory The system in the UK is currently voluntary although a recent poll published by LogRhythm showed that 80 percent of people wanted more stringent laws regarding data breaches.
Out of the 5000 people surveyed, 31 percent even suggested that company directors should be subject to criminal proceedings. Many have welcomed the commissioner’s step towards protecting sensitive data. The Financial Times referred to Graham as a “privacy watchdog chief with a bite”, and noted that the announcement follows criticism of the ICO’s handing of the Google Street View data collection controversy.
Perhaps the ICO is trying to prove it is a watchdog with teeth.
One of Diaspora’s founders, Maxwell Salzberg told the BBC: “We are going after the idea there are all these centralised services where people are giving up their personal information. We want to put users back in control of what they share.”
It’s refreshing to see a social network that doesn’t require individuals to hand over reams of private data but with Facebook’s 500 million members, is there a place for Diaspora? Although the company plans to roll out services gradually, subscription to the site is only available to a small number of invited users.
Salzberg says Diaspora, “is not just about Facebook. Facebook is not what we are going after.” But the founders will have to progress past the “baby steps” they outline in a blog post on the site if they want their privacy-championing project to challenge the status quo.
I’ve added three new listings to events page. If you were hoping to come along to the Edinburgh International Book Festival I’m afraid it’s already sold out.
Thursday 12 August – 7.00pm – Frontline Club
Saturday 21 August – 12:00-1:00pm – Edinburgh International Book Festival
Monday 13 September – 7:00-8:30pm – Westminster Skeptics, London